All Web Crime, All the Time

By: Steve Outing

The vast majority of news Web sites, even those of major news media companies, consist mostly of repurposed content rather than original-for-the-Web content. But as the Web matures as a publishing medium, we’re starting to see more operations hiring substantial online content staff and producing for the new medium.

Today marks the launch of APB Online, a U.S. crime news Web site that begins life with a staff of 15 editors and writers (out of a total staff of 24) plus a network of freelance crime writers around the country — and a commitment to producing original content instead of repackaging wire service news.

APB Online is an ambitious, venture capital-funded content play that aims to be the ESPN Sportszone of crime news, according to one of its founders, executive vice president for content Mark Sauter (a former star of the TV tabloid news show “Inside Edition” and son of former CBS president Van Gordon Sauter). The other founders of New York-based APB Multimedia, which has offices near Wall Street, are investment bankers Marshall Davidson and Matthew Cohen.

Davidson first came up with the idea several years ago, and the early thinking was that what now starts life as a Web site would be a cable television channel focusing on crime and law enforcement news and entertainment. Instead, the Internet looked to offer a better financial model, so the team moved forward in first creating a Web site.

But the Web site is only the first step, and the company plans to expand the APB brand name to multiple media. Associated with the Web site is a news service called APB News, run by managing editor Hoag Levins (who until recently was executive editor of Editor & Publisher, which hosts this column). The content produced by Levins’ staff — which includes only four editors with the rest of the editorial staff doing writing and research — will be syndicated to other media, including newspapers and television looking for crime-related specialty news and features.

Sauter says the company is likely to follow a model similar to that of CNET, which started out as a Web site offering daily computer industry news then expanded to television programming and other areas. He says the company’s goal is to build the APB brand name to the equivalent of an ESPN or CNET, providing originally produced crime news to online sites, newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks, in addition to its own Web service.

CEO Davidson says the company is in it for the long haul, and doesn’t expect to turn a profit for several years. He says the models they are following are those of ESPN or MTV, for instance, which each took many years to reach profitability. He says his investors, a mix of traditional venture capital firms and established media investors, have expressed a willingness to be patient.

In between trade press and tabloids

Levins explains that APB’s coverage of crime and law enforcement related news is positioned in the middle ground between “tabloid” news coverage of crime and the law enforcement trade press. It is expected to appeal to the 3.6 million people in the U.S. who work in the criminal justice system and related agencies and businesses, as well as a larger consumer base that’s simply interested in reading about crime.

“We’re not like ‘Geraldo'” or the National Enquirer, Levins says, “we’re more like CNN or Newsday” would be if they focused exclusively on crime and law enforcement. He recently finished a hiring spree, in which he grabbed mostly experienced writers from newspapers, and a few magazines and broadcast news companies. Some of his editorial hires come from organizations like the Bergen Record (New Jersey), New Jersey Online, Newsday, the Dallas Observer (Texas), FOX News, and Ladies Home Journal.

Some regular freelancers have been found, but the goal is to have nearly 50 correspondents around the country contributing content and assisting the New York-based staff writers and researchers with local expertise. Many of the freelancers are reporters at newspapers who will write for APB News on the side. (Of course, some newspapers have policies against their employees writing for sites like APB, since some publishers consider such online operations as being competitive with their newspapers or Web sites.)

Pay for freelancers typically ranges between $150 for a “quickie” assignment to $900 for a major piece. “This isn’t Esquire,” says Levins, “but we are paying reasonable rates to our freelancers.”

Content on the site is varied, with everything from headline news about crimes, to features about law enforcement techniques, to reviews about crime-related movies and crime TV shows, to humorous content about “dumb criminals.” The idea is to be an information source to those who work in the law enforcement and legal professions, as well as provide crime “entertainment.” One feature story is about a reporter spending a night at the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts, which is now a bed & breakfast inn that gives its guests a chance to “relive” the Lizzie Borden legend. (In case you don’t remember, she is believed by many to have murdered her father and stepmother with an axe, although she was acquitted and the mystery never solved.)

Crime buffs will like the APB site, which takes major crime cases and highlights them in special sections containing everything you’d ever want to know. Want to really understand the Jonbenet Ramsey murder case? The Jonbenet section of the site includes a treasure trove of information, including as much public domain documentation on the case as the APB staff has been able to find. There’s a diagram of the Ramsey house in Boulder, Colorado, with descriptions of the evidence found in each part of the house — all the better to aid amateur sleuths in solving a case that has baffled Boulder’s beleaguered police department.

Having readers help “solve” major crimes is another important part of the site. An “Unsolved Cases” section of the site features an interactive component featuring John Douglas, the former FBI profiler who was the real-life model for actress Jodi Foster’s FBI boss in the film “Silence of the Lambs.” He presents clues of actual unsolved cases, and Web users are directed to the actual evidence to help “solve” the crime. It has the feel of a game, but Sauter says he would never call this feature by that name, since this is about actual unsolved criminal acts.

Levins is committed to breaking stories ahead of other media, and the site launches with an article about the Green River killer, who is believed to have murdered 49 women and is still on the loose. APB freelancer Megan Clark has a story about how federal funding for a computer analysis project in the case has been cut — a project that law enforcement officials involved in the case believe could help identify the killer from among the half million individuals that have been interviewed by investigators working on the case.

Depressing news?

A site strictly about criminal activity might strike you as depressing, but Sauter and Levins say that APB’s content will be balanced between reading the specifics about criminal acts (which is not exactly uplifting) and positive news about heroic acts by law enforcement officers, programs that are successfully helping reform offenders, and reviews of movies with crime themes, for example.

Levins says the site will avoid being gratuitously graphic, and will abide by standards of taste not unlike a major urban newspaper. He doubts that a 13-year-old would find anything especially shocking on the site. And he has no plans to reproduce graphic crime scene photos of mutilated bodies. “If I had to rate our site, I’d say it’s probably PG-13,” he says, referring to the U.S. movie rating system.

Sauter thinks the concept of a crime site will be successful, because the public currently does exhibit and historically has shown a serious appetite for crime news and entertainment. A major portion of most TV news and print journalism covers crime, and despite frequent complaints that the media focuses too much on crime, the news-consuming public continues to clamor for more. Levins points out that some of the largest Web traffic numbers have been associated with cases like the O.J. Simpson trial and the Jonbenet murder case.

Can crime sell advertising? APB’s founders think so. Davidson says he contacted national advertisers on crime-related TV shows like “NYPD Blue” and found that they would consider advertising on a crime-related online site if the content was not salacious and the presentation was not sensational and “tabloid”-like. Just about every major advertiser places on crime TV shows, says Davidson. APB Online is participating in the Link Exchange banner ad program, and it is using an outside repping firm to sell to the site.

Davidson says advertising opportunities will be split between demographically targeted advertising and contextual sponsorship availabilities. The area of the Web site called “Safe Streets,” for example, might attract security companies as advertisers. He also expects to find revenue from online sales of security-related products, books, movies, etc.

For now, the founders feel like they are well positioned as a “first mover” in the crime media market. There is no comparable site on the Web, nor anything similar in print; crime-specific news comes from trade journals and some tabloid publications that take an entertainment approach to crime, but nothing in between.

Contact: Hoag Levins, hoagl@apbnews.com
Mark Sauter, marks@apbnews.com

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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